The Black Radical Congress and Black Feminist Organizing
During the last five hundred years humanity has witnessed its own true capacities for boundless genius and inhumane ruthlessness, for visionary innovation and short-sighted self-destruction, for oppression and survival, for tradition and change, for loving and hating with passionate and violent certainty. Today, at the height of our technical sophistication, material accumulation, and rhetorical tolerance, we cannot ignore the enormous injustices that exist for the multitudes generally, and for our communities specifically...
It is we, the descendants of slaves and immigrants, the survivors of the most grotesque forms of inhumanity, who are best equipped to direct the world towards becoming human again. We survive in cities of concrete and steel, where wealth surrounds but opportunity is scarce; we survive in rural communities where abject poverty prevails and opportunity is scarce; we survive exploitative working conditions when we escape the highest rates of joblessness, inferior health care when we can afford it, and overcrowded schools with the least equipment and lowest standards; we survive hostile police, corrupt politicians, a biased legal system and a power elite and nation that has forgotten its origins; we survive. Yet, with will and responsibility, we stand for the possibility of a civilization that is civil, that is consistent in its protection of the inherent rights of every human to self-determination….
Black Freedom Agenda of the Black Radical Congress 1998
How do we become human again? The above quotation from the Black Freedom Agenda (adopted by the Black Radical Congress at its founding meeting in June 1998) continues to guide the politics and inspire present members of the Black Radical Congress (BRC). The second Congress of the BRC was convened in June 2003, five years after the first, to sharpen this question in a context of war, racism, increased repression and the occupation of Iraq. This meeting took place at a moment when the US ruling class was involved in a massive military campaign to dominate the planet from space and to roll back the gains of the self-determination movements of the twentieth century.
On February 15, 2003 millions of people across the globe participated in demonstrations to oppose the US military offensive. Many members of the Black Radical Congress were central to this mobilization. The challenge, then and now, is how to grasp the ideas of peace so that the ethnocentrism, sexism and racism of the left can be transcended.1 The left movement in the United States has yet to confront the systematic prejudice within its ranks.
Though scholars such as Howard Zinn and David Stannard have exposed the genocidal past of the USA, the mainstream peace movement has refused to take on the issue of reparations and the genocide against people of African descent. It is in this context that the leading edge of radicalism in the twentieth century has become embedded in the Black radical imagination (Kelley 2002).
On the heels of the historic meeting of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa (and the attack on the World Trade Center), the National Council, the highest policy making body of the BRC met in late September 2001. There, members committed themselves to deepen the culture of reparations within the peace and global justice movements. The BRC elected to promote a campaign against “war, racism and repression” and to struggle for “peace, reparations, justice.” A “fightback” committee was formed that organized regional meetings with other left organizations of color to develop a strategy. Translating theoretical ideas of politics into day-to-day political struggles in the oppressed communities of Africans in the USA has never been easy. Nevertheless, numerous activists have been rethinking the basic ideas of political action, facilitated by black feminist integrative analysis and praxis3
We believe that black feminist analysis and praxis can be utilized to understand experiences beyond those of black women. We examine to what extent the features of black feminist organizing are reflected in the work of the BRC 2003 gathering. There are four intersecting axes to the black feminist approach. We examine each of them separately. The strongest areas (at BRC 2003) were: 1) the importance of remaining organically tied to communities, 2) internationalism, and 3) dynamism in social movements. The weakest area was 4) integrated analysis.
1. Black feminist organizing must be organically tied to and representative of multiple constituencies within Africana communities and rooted in everyday people’s experiences and desires.
Organizing starts with the knowledge base and experiences of community members. Even the voices of the most marginalized should be reflected. There is no room for exclusionary practices among African, African American or Caribbean men, heterosexuals, middle class African Americans, or Christians. Black Feminists have historically challenged male-centered “humanists” in their midst by promoting the importance of integrating a gendered analysis to race consciousness.4Black feminists work to integrate an analysis of heterosexism in liberatory scholarship and activism in order to promote a more comprehensive notion of community to which organizers must be held accountable (see Lorde 1984, Cohen 1999). One of the key organizers of the BRC, Barbara Ransby not only sought to develop new practices but to elaborate theoretically the forms of political organizing which had been developed by Ella Baker (Ransby 2003). Black feminist organizing is built from women’s use of alternative resources, often necessitated by their attempt to seize new spaces for organizing. The process of embracing alternative strategies developed by women emerging out of their experiences at the margins can lead to new solutions.5This had been most forthrightly articulated by the Combahee River Collective of Black feminists who articulated a new vision of theory and practice (Smith 1998).
The Black Radical Congress began with a unified belief that a new kind of formation was necessary to organize people of African descent for revolutionary change. One component of this change was to be able to move from old ideas of vanguardism and centralism to ideas of self-organization and self-mobilization of the kind promoted by Ella Baker and Harriet Tubman. The opening plenary of the 2003 Congress thus included representatives from the newly reconstituted working class caucus, from the youth caucus, the black feminist caucus, the Education and Incarceration Campaign, and the International Caucus and Fightback committee. Ajamu Dillahunt, of Black Workers for Justice, stressed the centrality of the black worker in the struggle for liberation. Ewuare Osayande of the Philadelphia Local Organizing Committee spoke eloquently of the thousands of youth whose relationship to the means of production was via the prison industrial complex. Horace Campbell spoke about the importance of healing and moving from old forms of politics.
In the breakout sessions, several groups addressed the need to bring the antiwar movement to the grassroots. Recommendations included:
- Figure out how to translate the overwhelming anti-war sentiment in the Black community into action beyond just mass mobilizations.
- Recognize the classism in the anti-war movement and counter it by promoting people speaking for themselves instead of others acting as spokespeople for them.
- Link social justice issues to the struggle against the war.
- Challenge the notion of the military as a way out for Black and Brown people.
- Utilize popular education strategies like theater of the oppressed that start with our own experiences of oppression as a basis to stimulate the imagination of youth.
- Engage people in discussion about how the war economy is impacting the quality of their everyday lives.
The last suggestion leads to the next item in the black feminist organizing framework, internationalism.
2. Black feminism connects local struggles to the international humanist struggle.
The interconnections between gender oppression, racism, heterosexism, and class oppression—including imperialism as interlocking systems of domination on a world scale—are basic to this analysis. Connecting to the worldwide humanist struggle is a crucial resource to women who work as “minorities” in the American context. They realize in the global context that they are part of a critical majority. As organizers struggle in what feels like an uphill battle and in isolated locations “in the belly of the beast,” African American women gain inspiration by remembering that they are not alone, that their sisters in Soweto, Ibadan, Cape Town, Gaborone, Fez, Montreal, and Kingston are fighting similar battles.
Imperialist societies exploit chauvinism and nationalism in their citizens. As an imperial state the US is no different, and one of the many challenges of the peace movement is to become genuinely internationalist. The emergence of Condoleezza Rice, Jendai Frazier, and other black women who had been exposed to liberal feminism requires that radical feminists be clear in their relation to imperialism. The African American community is changing both in its class character and with respect to the birthplace of many of its members. With the pull of the global capitalist labor market, there are new African communities in the US.6 Hence the BRC’s decision to open its Congress 2003 with a day devoted to international solidarity.
During the opening plenary, Linda Burnham, Director of the Women of Color Resource Center in the Bay area of California, raised the issue of why radicals had to rise above the limits of the domestic discourse on the Democratic Party and its relevance as a vehicle for change. She expressed why men and women of all classes and all races should oppose the war and racism. Humberto Brown, of the BRC’s International Caucus, deepened this analysis by linking the struggles for peace and justice in the USA with the struggles in Central America, the Caribbean and South America. Robin D.G. Kelley added an incisive analysis of why the reparations campaign is central to a new anti-imperialist agenda. He invoked the idea of collective reparations to include all exploited and oppressed peoples:
Internationalizing reparations does not dilute it. Does anyone think we’ll win reparations from the Bush administration or US multinational corporations? Winning is not getting a check. But it is mobilizing masses around these ideas. Reparations as a social movement has a larger agenda. It is not a handout but a down payment on centuries of labor and human rights violations. The human rights framework should be adopted by the reparations movement. Without an international human rights framework we might make tragic mistake of demanding cash without changing the conditions that created the oppression in the first place.
Rania Masri then linked the issues of Africa to Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and the global “war on terror.” It is no longer possible to hold a radical meeting without focusing directly on the context, impact and consequences of the US military occupation of Iraq. In describing the current conditions in Iraq, she sought to bring to life the struggles of the Iraqi people in resisting occupation. She made some recommendations to the peace movement in general and the BRC in particular, including: 1) internationalizing the critique beyond just Iraq, especially linking the issues of Iraq and Palestine; 2) emphasizing that militarism and capitalism go hand-in-hand; 3) working in our labor unions to demand U.S. out of Iraq now; 4) working in the people of color caucuses of United for Peace and Justice; and 5) organizing in the spirit of “the revolution is possible,” not in the spirit of “the lesser of two evils.”
3. Black feminist organizing must be “dynamic and ever changing.”7
The oppressive forces constantly try to outpace the efforts of those who would end their domination. Black feminist organizing therefore recognizes the need to constantly seek new strategies, exercising criticism and self-criticism while keenly analyzing the changing conditions. An analysis of post-9/11 organizing shows that dynamic aspects include intergenerational leadership, collective leadership, and integrated acts of resistance in the antiwar movement among people of color.
Dynamism was evident in the nonhierarchical, collective approach to organizing the meeting. Three co-chairs organized the congress. Several speakers spoke to the need to reassess organizational strategies. Rania Masri also spoke to the importance of dynamism in the movement. She noted that a positive outlook is important to attracting new participants: “We must organize as if we can win! We must organize with the belief that victory is possible soon!” Discussion raised the need for steps like creating a “Change the World Café” and other spaces that can help build a culture of peace, and also for using cyber-organizing in targeted ways (like moveon.org).
Issues of Palestine, Iraq, Colombia and the search for peace in Africa proved to be key tests for the understanding of how black feminism was understood by Black radicals. It was in the context of the Zimbabwe debate that the BRC’s principles of unity were tested. Two months before the Congress, the Coordinating Committee of the BRC had signed a letter critiquing the oppression of workers and peasants in Zimbabwe. The Coordinating Committee had taken the position that the homophobic and sexist posture of the Zimbabwean leadership had disqualified this leadership from the progressive ranks of the anti-imperialist movement.
A significant section of the BRC, however, felt that the leadership of Zimbabwe was deserving of support insofar as it had expropriated white settler farmers. This group refused to consider the importance of sexism and homophobia in the matrix of domination. In one sense, this was a defining moment for the organization to stand by the principles of the BRC’s Black Freedom Agenda and the Principles of Unity. After this debate there were irrevocable differences within the BRC, and a faction split from the main organization. Some members took the debate to the community of Harlem with the support of representatives of the Mugabe government. These forces, who later left the BRC, argued that the issue of anti-imperialism preceded issues of gender equality and the rights of workers.
4. Black feminism highlights the importance of integrated analysis in political organizing.
Workers in the Congress of South African Trade Unions have taken a position consistent with that of the radical feminists, namely, that radical rhetoric should not protect misogynist leaders. “As long as Black women’s subordination within intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation persists, Black feminism as an activist response to that oppression will remain needed” (Collins 2000: 22). Radical Black feminism promotes structural analysis that speaks to the total transformation of society (Zerai & Banks 2002). This perspective provides an important focus for political organizing. Oppressive social structures are understood to be a matrix of domination representing the convergence of nationalism, racism, class oppression, sexism, homophobia and other spheres of inequality. Black feminist organizers self-consciously employ integrated analysis in their organizational strategies and political discussions (Kuumba 1999, Smith 1998).
Political education is required to impart an integrated analysis. Linda Burnham called for educational work on how gender, race, and class inequalities are deepened by Bush pro-war policies. In the breakout sessions following her presentation, participants considered how to incorporate internationalism, black feminism, class-consciousness, etc., in the BRC’s peace and reparations work. Groups offered suggestions for collaborative organizing across these intersections, like encouraging organizers to “engage progressive hip hop culture to link with issues.”
Many of the presenters and participants in breakout sessions at the BRC Congress of 2003 resonated strongly with three items in the black feminist organizing framework: connecting to everyday people’s struggles, internationalism, and the importance of dynamism in black social movements. Dynamism is an area of growth for the BRC, but the BRC has not yet focused on how to think through the ideas of self-organization in order to break from the old positions of vanguardism. Is the BRC a decentralized network of campaigns that is linked to the rhythm of overthrowing capitalism? Is the BRC an organization with cadres? The youth of the BRC are calling for a decentralized movement that can tap into the positive vibrations of youth oppositional forces. Others are calling for this oppositional energy to be informed by the lessons of black liberation struggles from the period of the anti-slavery rebellions up to the Black Panther Party. Robin Kelley sought to broaden the reparations campaign to be one of collective reparations that would include the First Nation peoples.
There are those in the BRC who have heeded this call and are seeking to develop the kind of politics that can imbue the reparations debate with the Healing Wisdom of Africa. When Malidome Some wrote this book on healing (1999), there were many on the left who considered these ideas metaphysical. However, it is becoming clearer that the culture of reparations will only take root when the concept of reparations moves from the material moorings to one that is concerned with healing and reconstruction. The end of apartheid brought to the fore the politics of healing. These are the politics that deal with the health of society. This prioritizes the spiritual, political, mental and physical health of all human beings. The 2003 Congress demonstrated that within the BRC the politics of reparations and healing are still in the stage of infancy and that the growth of the BRC will be determined by the extent to which it liberates itself from politics rooted in the European Enlightenment, with its implicit acceptance of the hierarchy of human beings.
Humanity faces extinction from the ideas and practices of the capitalist mode of production, including environmental destruction and possibly annihilation from nuclear weapons. The capitalist class in the United States has made it clear that it will use whatever weaponry is necessary to ensure its continuing hegemony. For this reason, the revolutionary movement’s concept of democracy must rise above the bourgeois liberal version. Similarly, one of the tasks of revolutionaries is to liberate Marxism from Enlightenment conceptions of a purely rational human nature.
The concept of healing moves beyond simply a materialist analysis of social questions. The history of the past century has demonstrated the need to liberate humanity from the conception of the hierarchy of humans, whether manifested by the Nazis, the U.S., the Israelis, or anyone else. The concept of healing is a necessity for both violators and violated, as was demonstrated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Republic of South Africa. This approach is in line with the struggles for an interdependent world embodied by the World Social Forum. Grief and trauma are underdeveloped theoretical questions on the left. This is where a holistic approach to transformation incorporates not just class, gender, and sexuality struggles, but the spiritual healing of society.
The interdependence between humans, the natural environment and animals constituted one of the core elements of the preservation of life for centuries. The anti-capitalist struggle must be enriched with the struggle for a new human being. This was the essence of Che Guevara’s idea of creating a new man. However, while one can conceive of the Guevara new man as a generic new person, the history of masculinity, patriarchy and heterosexism lend special weight to the conceptions of healing that emanate from black feminist thought.
Although some elements of this thought have influenced organizations like the BRC, there is still much to be done. The contributions of integrated analysis are yet to be taken up by the typical participant in such movements.
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1. It was the late Edward Said who in his study of Orientalism argued that the western intellectual internalized systematic prejudices about the non-western world (1978).
3. There are numerous scholars and scholar activists whose intellectual work undergirds or describes this new direction in political organizing, including Barbara Smith, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Julia Sudbury, M. Bahati Kuumba, Cathy Cohen, Patricia Hill Collins and others. Countless activists have contributed importantly to this impending shift in Black radical organizing.
4. See the examples of Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells Barnett, Amy J. Garvey, Rose Brewer, and M. Bahati Kuumba (Zerai 2000).
5. Unfortunately these solutions are sometimes exploited by other interests. For example, women’s agency as mothers and “other mothers” to provide for the well-being of family members in the global south has been so powerful as to be exploited by governments and multinational lending agencies and corporations. In Zimbabwe, “Community” Development Programs are promoted by governments with the blessing of multinational interests. These programs offer no significant material resources to needy families. Their “program” is to encourage “community members” (already burdened women) to provide for basic social welfare of those who are most in need.
6. The tasks of mobilizing this divergent African community were highlighted after the brutal killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. Diallo was a Guinean immigrant who was shot in the vestibule of his apartment by New York City policemen. His only “weapon” was his wallet. When he pulled it out to show his identification, he was shot 41 times. Working with individuals from Diallo’s immigrant Islamic community in New York, the BRC sought to bring attention to this case to exemplify the many police killings in our varied black communities. The BRC made T-shirts that read, “We are all Amadou Diallo.” Hip hop songs, including “41 Bullets,” were performed. For an analysis of this new African American/American African community, see Philippe Wamba’s Kinship (1999).
7. Adapted from Collins (1990).